Aleksey Semenenko came to the Gardner Museum on Sunday and lit the place up with his playing. The Ukrainian-born violinist is boyish in appearance, but his biography is coy about his birthdate; he won the Young Concert Artists International auditions in 2012, if that’s any measure. The standard conceit in the face of this kind of youthful virtuosity is to acknowledge the technique but ask about the musician’s capacity expressivity and musicality, and I’m afraid this review is sticking to that strategy. While there’s still room for growth, Sunday’s program was intriguing and left me wondering just the coming years hold in store for Semenenko.
The afternoon started with off with Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 162/D 574, “Grand duo”, from 1817, relatively early in Schubert’s career. Semenenko brought exuberant energy to the piece, though the wiry muscularity of his playing was more Beethovenian boisterousness than Schubertian good nature. Throughout the concert he threw himself into passagework and knotty phrases with a gusto that, in this case, rather manhandled Schubert. His lyrical playing was thoughtful and expressive, but had a touch of anxiety and restlessness in it. His pianist, Inna Firsova, also raised in the Ukraine, had a better handle on what might be needed here: both would get to play similar material, but where he was intense and sharp she was pearly and her playing evoked conversation rather than declamation. The piece seemed over very quickly, so much incident was crammed into it. The violinist seems to have a sharp intellect—there’s a quicksilver quality to his changes of mood, but all that thinking may be making him miss the qualities that make Schubert compelling.
Next Semenenko took the stage alone for the Ysaÿe Sonata for Solo Violin, No. 3, Op. 27, “Ballade” from 1924—this was much more like it. In this bipartite (slow-fast) work Ysaÿe uses every device available to the virtuoso to conjure a world of deeply emotional struggle. The constant double stops and other challenges posed no problems for the young violinist – he was able instead to create a formidable, even forbidding landscape. As the brooding first movement subsided, the second movement provided no relief—the increase in speed only brought the crises to a head more quickly. This was virtuosity used to create a world of feeling that could not have been brought into being any other way, and the ending was both breathtaking and bleak—a major achievement.
What a weird choice, then, to follow this with another sort of Ysaÿe, one where the pyrotechnics were used to gussy up a slender study by Saint-Saëns. The Etude en form du valse, Op. 52, No. 6 uses more technical tricks and is certainly a wild showpiece, but coming after the dark brilliance of the Sonata, it felt a little cheap. I may be in the minority on this: a woman half a row away from me was so transported she found herself conducting along with Semenenko’s dynamics and flourishes, positively bouncing in her seat.
After intermission came another surprise. Poulenc’s Sonata in D Minor, Op. 119, from 1942-43, shows that even the urbane, witty Poulenc was scarred by the geopolitical catastrophes of that time. The first movement is rushed and angular, and Poulenc sounds out of his element; every now and then a phrase of more cosmopolitan cast, a fragment of cabaret song might appear, only to be subsumed under another violent rush. In this movement Firkov showed herself to be quite equal to Semenenko in intensity when the music demanded it, and their clashes were exciting to behold. Semenenko has a touch of vinegar in his tone, and used it well and liberally in the first movement; Firkov’s tone never became edgy or steely, it just expanded in size and volume to counter the violin’s violence. The second movement evokes bells at its start and promises something more soothing, but there’s a dead-eyed quality to the melody, as if it were remembering better times. The last movement has a bitter circus music quality to it, distantly recalling Shostakovich; Poulenc sounds almost desperate, making gestures that never quite add up. It may not be the most self-assured composition, but it is fascinating to listen to; its contradictions provoke thought. The endings of all of the movements are a little mysterious: especially the glissando to nowhere at the end of the second movement, and the distantly spaced extinction of the finale.
At this point you look in your program and see Valse-Scherzo by Tchaikovsky, and heave a sigh for another showpiece, only to have the violinist announce a different choice and instead proffer Heifetz’s arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune—a much better choice it was. Heifetz’s arrangement still has plenty of fireworks and when they came up Semenenko still played them like he was performing a concerto, but when the notes calmed down so did he, and the ghostly beginning was very beautiful indeed. His sound when quiet is not especially lush, but it is responsive to every nuance of the music. The arid acoustic of Calderwood may have dried his sound out a little, but there was still plenty to listen to.
After this was another technical explosion, the “Figaro” Variations from The Barber of Seville in an arrangement by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, which was somewhat more interesting for its occasional forays into weirdness, the violin just running away with figures unmoored from the melody then swooping back in to bite off another couple of measures before spinning them up into another note-filled froth. It was great fun.
When he returned from the loud applause to offer an encore, my snarky side thought “you’ve played plenty of encores already”, and so I was relieved to hear him offer an arrangement of La Vie en Rose by New England composer Tony Schemmer, who was in the audience for the recital. Much like the Debussy, it alternated sweet music sweetly played with lots of notes, played with fury—and by this point I figured he just couldn’t help himself. With such a technical arsenal, why not fire away?
I look forward to hearing him again in some years. Then he might astonish us with a new take on La Vie en Rose, playing that melody in a way that will banish gratuitous speed and flourish.